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Rediscovering My Inner Farm-Girl

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When I was a young child, perhaps four or five years old, I spent hours playing with the water from the hose that soaked my mother's flower beds, using a trowel to draw channels in the soil to direct the water to particular plants, and shaping earthen dams to capture the flow. Once when my grandparents came for a visit from their faraway home in Florida, my engineer granddad watched me play, and then bent his tall form to my level.

Using a stick, he drew various channel designs in the dirt, and gave me a short lesson in fluvial hydrology, showing me how a curve could slow the water down, a deeper channel would hold more flow, and how "stacking" a series of curves would create meanders to reshape my miniature river. Before my grandmother called him into the house, he also demonstrated how to use pebbles to strengthen the downstream face of my dams, and how to curve the dam to better cup the flow. (My proper Scots grandmother did not approve of her only granddaughter playing in the dirt. She wanted a girly-girl, dressed in ruffles and patent-leather shoes, with flyaway strawberry blond hair neatly confined by the bunny-shaped hair clips she brought me.) 

I was fascinated by Granddad's lesson, and practiced it assiduously after he and grandmother left. I learned how to sculpt a channel so it would keep itself clean and flowing at just the right volume and speed to not flood the plant. And to shape a dam to spread the water out, as well as retain it.

I had forgotten that part of my childhood until I found myself walking the main hayfield at the farm the other day, using the toe of my rubber irrigation boots to clear debris from the shallow channels that carry water from the irrigation pipes across the field. I heard my mother's voice in my head calling me "Farmer Susie," and saw her shaking her head with a loving smile as she and my dad wondered where my passion for channeling water, tending plants, and digging weeds came from. 

Back then, with a child's naivete, I thought I would grow up and live on a farm or a ranch, and work with water and plants and horses. How that was going to happen, when I grew up in the suburbs, and neither of my parents had ever worked in agriculture, I never considered. I just knew I would. In my teens and twenties, I worked in a stable, taught riding, helped out with friends' farms and ranches, and even for a brief time, had my own little acreage and a few horses. Until I went to graduate school, and fell in love with Richard and Molly.

Richard, Molly, and Susan on our front porch in Boulder, 1988

My life turned in the direction of step-motherhood and writing, and tending our little household as we followed Richard's academic career through nine moves in 14 years, eventually settling in Salida, Colorado, where we bought and revived a half-block of blighted industrial property. Not exactly my dream farm, but it afforded space to replant a swath of native mountain prairie, cultivate an enormous organic kitchen garden (my friends called it my mini-farm), and restore a block of urban creek, reviving its green ribbon of native shrubs and trees and returning its healthy sinuosity, thus applying my granddad's lessons in fluvial hydrology.

And now, 60 years later, here I am spending spring and part of the summer on the Guy's small grass-hay farm. My forgotten farm-girl is thriving, happily learning the irrigation system and managing water, digging out and controlling invasive weeds, censusing frogs in the pond, planning pollinator and songbird plantings in the woodlot, and even mucking the dry lot. (Four thousand-pound horses times a bale of hay each day equals more horse manure than you would think!)

"Why do you care about this place?" the Guy asked one night a few weeks ago as we were walking back across the hayfields in the evening after moving a whole slew of irrigation pipe. He was tired, and feeling a bit cranky. I considered as we walked through fragrant grasses, listening to the "pee-nt!" calls of invisible nighthawks as swallows fluttered overhead. I watched the sunset fade over the distant line of Grand Mesa.

Sunset over Grand Mesa, reflected in the farm pond, whose peeping chorus of frogs lulls us to sleep every night.

"First," I said, picking my words, "I admire what you've done with the place. You took a chunk of played-out land with tumbledown buildings, and turned it into a healthy  farm, with a lovely and well-built house and barns, productive hayfields, and habitat for songbirds and other wildlife." He nodded and I went on, trying and failing to keep the emotion out of my voice, "Second, the place speaks powerfully about who you are, someone who not only nurtures the fields, but who also tends the rest of the community, human and wild. I love that about you. I want to help." 

He switched on his headlamp and was silent as we walked in the cone of its the light. Finally he said, "Thank you for showing me how you see it."

The deer love this place, and the Guy loves them. 

There is more I want to say, but he's not ready to hear it. He's cautious, slow to trust. So I'm being as patient as I can be. Someday, I'll add this: "I love the place because it's yours. I want to belong here, with you--for as long as we have." 

For now, I'm content to irrigate, work with weeds, and plan native plantings to expand the existing wildlife habitat. The orioles are chattering in the towering elms, the catbirds foraging in the garden, and the robins are singing. He and the herd have gone to Wyoming to work, and he trusts me to tend the farm while he's away.

That's enough. For now. 

Sunset, and I'm still irrigating. The view more than compensates for the long days. 

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A Passion for House Renovation

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One of the ways I'm staying sane through the coronavirus pandemic is focusing on house renovation, chipping away at my punch list of what needs to be done to make Casa Alegria sustainable and ready for its next three decades of life.  

Perhaps engaging in renovation seems frivolous in these times, but it's part of my calling to heal my community, wild and human. That includes tending land, buildings, and those species with whom I share this Earth. Right now, it especially means putting money back into the human community by buying my supplies locally, supporting local businesses, and employing local tradespeople. It's my way of giving back in a time when so many are struggling.

House renovation isn't something I was born to. I didn't grow up using tools or understanding how buildings work. My interest born of necessity. When Richard, my late husband, died of brain cancer in 2011, I was left with a staggering amount of medical debt. Most of our assets were tied up in a beautiful but unfinished house that he had built and the adjacent historic studio he had partly fixed up. I needed to sell the whole place and I couldn't afford to hire out the finish work. So with the help of generous friends, I learned how to use tools, materials, and design; and to hang doors, install baseboard, fabricate counters, put up drywall and other wall coverings, shape copper and sandstone, and mill trim. It was grueling but empowering work.

Me in the early Tool Girl days, working with my incredibly talented friends, Tony (cutting galvanized steel) and Maggie (shooting the photo) to finish a tub-shower alcove in the unfinished master bathroom.

By the time that property sold and I paid my debts, I was deep into my next project, overseeing construction of my first-ever solo abode, a small passive-solar house plus a garage topped with a guest apartment. I loved that little house, and had a hand in every last detail, from the re-purposed gym flooring in the apartment to the hand-carved bathroom sink in the main house.

Creek House, my little house, and Treehouse, the adjacent garage with guest apartment above. 

Then Wyoming called me home to be nearer to my aging dad, and my brother and family. I found what I thought would be my forever home, a gorgeous and incredibly dilapidated mid-century modern house built the year I was born. I spent two years renovating it from the scary boiler in the basement and the eccentric wiring, to the non-functioning bathrooms and the roof, with the help of my hard-working and easy-going contractor, Jeff. I redid the yard too.

The classic mid-century kitchen in my Cody house (after painstaking restoration). Don't those colors just make you smile?

As I was finishing that project, Dad, who we all thought would live at least another decade, died of an aggressive cancer. I considered my options, put the house up for sale, and decamped to the warmer climate of Santa Fe, where I already had a circle of friends, plus a little rental condo. I bought another condo in the same complex, and dove into another renovation project: replacing the carpet with plank floors, re-doing the galley kitchen, and painting the all-white walls lively colors. After I moved in, I also replaced the dying furnace and the old, leaky windows and sliding glass doors, and added a French door from the second bedroom to the patio. While I was at it, I renovated the rental condo too. (I may be certifiable, but I really enjoy bringing new life to neglected living spaces.) 

The living room of my condo. It was charming--if still quite small at just over 800 square feet--by the time I finished renovating it! 

Last fall, I realized that I am not a condo person. I need more space and fewer people nearby. So I found Casa Alegria, sold both condos, and moved. When I broke the news to my brother, he said, "If you move again, or buy another place to renovate, we're going to stage a family intervention." He was kidding. I think. 

I reassured him that my new house only needed "a little work," and I wasn't planning on moving. The latter is true, and the former is subject to interpretation. My definition of "a little work" may be generous.

Here's what I've had done since moving in November: removing all of the insulation in the attic over the garage and laundry room in order to evict the resident rodents and their leavings, blowing in new insulation, installing gutters, plus installing a new garage door that actually seals (to keep out said rodents). Then came replacing the old, marginally functional pellet stove replace with a new, efficient woodstove. During all that, Carlos, my wonderful handyman, replaced all of the clunky light fixtures with more graceful ones that use energy-saving LED bulbs, and also painted some of the walls to offset the pervasive whiteness.

The kitchen, with all-new LED floodlights, one wall painted yellow to emphasize the warm pine cabinets, a new double-sink and faucet, and Zapotec rugs on the floor.

The great room, with pale sage accent walls, a hand-forged chandelier over the dining table, and a dog occupying the blue leather couch.

The master bedroom with its cielo (sky)  blue wall... 

The next big renovation project was replacing most of the open-able windows in the house, and a few exterior doors too. The old ones were leaky metal, the new ones are tight, and the same style with divided lights, but they are wood on the inside, and power-coated steel on the outside.  

Replacing the living-room windows on a not-balmy day in winter... 

The finished living room, definitely worth the effort!

We were in the middle of the permit process for the next project, a roof-mounted photovoltaic system, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down New Mexico. After a few weeks, the crew came out with masks and gloves and installed my system. Last week, Public Service of New Mexico connected it to the grid, so my electric meter now runs backwards! (Those solar panels produce about twice as much power as we use.) 

The photovoltaic crew after installation, celebrating at a proper social-distance. 

What's next? A little yard work, some mechanical work (adding super-efficient heating and cooling units to replace the old and very inefficient electric baseboard heat), and down the line, replacing the leaky windows in the sunroom with more efficient ones. But for now, I'm going to head for my guy's farm. His gardens need renovation, and I know just the person to take on that project.

Stay safe and well. Blessings from me to you and yours! 

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Weathering Loneliness and Grief

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I've been a widow for eight-and-a-half years. I midwifed the deaths of my husband and my mom in the same year, so I have experience living with loneliness and grief. But I can say honestly that I've never experienced the kind of lows of the past week. I felt the darkness coming beforehand--I'm intuitive--and often, I get some sense of what's coming my way. Sometimes I can use that wordless warning to prepare myself. Sometimes not. This time, I wasn't successful.

After The Guy, his dog, and the horses pulled out a week ago, headed north, I found myself in tears all the time. Normally, I'm resilient and able to maintain a positive attitude. Not last week. Reading the news, responding to emails and texts from friends and family, learning of people I knew infected with COVID-19, an elderly friend dead from the virus--everything set me off. 

It's not that I was alone. I'm an introvert, so solo time is actually soothing for me. As I wrote in my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying:

As an introvert living in a body studded with what feels like hundreds of tiny antennae, I am easily overwhelmed by the stimuli of my fellow humans: our voices and words, the noise of our devices, our volatile emotions, and the electricity of our metabolic energy.

No, what had me in tears was simply the overload. I feel the world so strongly: emotions and other sensory information come to me as physical sensations. My body feels battered. That way of sensing the world is very much a gift, leading to rich understanding of humans and our ways, sometimes difficult premonitions, and other kinds of learning.

But it comes at a heavy cost. If the emotional and sensory stimuli build up within me, they’re literally toxic, causing what might be diagnosed as anxiety, but what I experience as acceleration of my heart-rate, erratic nervous system and electrical pulses, and general disruptions to my inner stability. Those symptoms overload my immune system, causing the potentially deadly organ impairment of my Lupus and other autoimmune conditions.

Trying to listen and be empathetic without allowing each day's swirling whirlwind of stimuli to become toxic has always been a challenge. It's even more so now--not just for me, for all of us.

Normally, I manage by writing, spending a lot time by myself or in the company of a very few others, and being physically active outside: walking, hiking, digging invasive weeds, renovating houses, or riding. And also--and this last is critical--by touch. I am a "touchy-feely" person: I hug others; I hold hands, kiss cheeks.

I depend on the balm of that physical contact. When I am frazzled and struggling to keep my emotional and mental balance, the warmth of another's hand, the press of a dog's muzzle on my leg, or the soothing rhythm of a horse's muscles invariably help me settle. Touch with other mammals is grounding. I can feel my systems stabilizing and harmonizing with theirs. 

We talk about “gentling” horses or dogs--and even people--with touch. Research supports the soothing and calming effect of physical touch on our emotions, our metabolisms, and our overall health, body, mind, and spirit.

Before The Guy, his dog, and the horses came into my life last fall, I met my need for that sort of "therapeutic touch" by interacting with my close circle of friends, my family, and their four-legged companions. Plus regular massages and monthly sessions from my Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Ehrland Truitt, who can feel how my body's systems are working simply by "listening" with his intuitive and sensitive touch. 

In close touch with family: on the water with two of my smart, generous, and beautiful nieces, Sienna Bryant and Heather Roland.

Now, in this era of adhering to social-distancing and shelter-in-place as critical ways to control the spread of Coronavirus, I am truly alone. I cannot hug my friends, or even shake hands with the tire guys who dealt with my flat tire yesterday. I have no dog to snuggle with when I'm blue. I am profoundly alone, and after only one week, starved for physical touch. I've struggled to maintain my emotional and mental balance. 

I realize that I am fortunate to be healthy (in my own slightly impaired way!) and not isolated or dying in a hospital or nursing home, and to have a safe and comfortable place to live. I am grateful for the daily contact-at-a-distance with friends, family, and The Guy. I'm grateful, too, for all of those who are working every day to make sure the rest of us are safe, meeting our essential needs for food and other services, and heroically tending to the sick and dying. 

I will survive this time of profound loneliness, this cell-deep grief about what is happening with us humans and this Earth, the blue planet we call home. And I can't wait until I can hug someone in gratitude for the gift of simply being here, now. 

Be well, my friends!

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Living in the Light During the Coronavirus Disease Pandemic

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When I first read the CDC guidelines about who is at highest risk for severe illness with Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), I admit to feeling both scared and pissed off. In fact, I am pretty sure I uttered a short and pithy phrase I won't repeat on this blog. (Suffice to say that it contained several four-letter words, and none of them were "love.")

I'm one of those most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19: I'm over 60 (that factor has now been raised to over 65, but I'm so close it makes no difference). I live with the chronic illness Lupus plus a small alphabet-soup array of other autoimmune conditions. I have lung issues from back when I was seriously ill in my 20s. I also have some heart-muscle damage and an arrhythmia that causes my heart to occasionally decide to do some jazzy improvising like, "Bada-bada-bada-bada-Bing Boom! Boom! Boom!". And I have a "compromised" immune system. (I prefer to say my immune system is "sensitive," but that's probably splitting hairs.)

I've lived well for decades with my own particular and challenging health, and truly, as I wrote in my memoir, Walking Nature Home, I've learned thrive. I'm generally healthy: I don't get sick often; I've never been hospitalized; I don't take any medications. I walk or hike or ride at least five miles a day; I eat well; and I'm strong enough to heave a full bucket of wet horse manure into the dumpster, and to generally be stubborn about doing things myself that I might be wise to let others do for me (which sometimes annoys The Guy!).   

Still... the CDC is right: I am at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. So I am following the guidelines: I wash my hands so often they are cracked and soak up lots of lotion, I practice social distancing and avoid crowded places; I am sheltering in place and staying home except for essential trips to town (for groceries) or to nearby open-space preserves (for Vitamin N, time in nature, which is as important to me as food). I keep my surroundings clean. And now that The Guy and his dog, and the horse-herd have all headed back to their spring home, I live alone. 

I won't let the COVID-19 pandemic degrade the quality of my days. I refuse to succumb to fear, or turn my back on the world. I read the news, but I don't obsess. I'm not hoarding toilet paper or anything else. (If I was going to hoard, it would be chocolate, green chile sauce, and Stranahan's whiskey!) Despite my concerns about the virus and finances and what will happen with book publishing and whether my friends and family will all weather this--my brother has asthma, one niece was exposed and fortunately tested negative... Despite all that, I refuse to panic. 

I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of this. People are dying; scores upon scores are ill. Heroic first-responders, medical providers, and other healthcare and spiritual-care folks are stepping up and into the metaphorical line of fire every day. Grocery store cashiers and stockers, delivery folks, and all manner of others are going about their work so the rest of us can shelter safely in place. I am heart-broken about the deaths and illnesses, the displacement of lives and jobs and education for so many. And I am grateful for all of those who are working and volunteering, who are living in the Light of courage and compassion and simple kindness. 

We can all do that, especially the simple kindness part. We can smile, say hello (from a proper distance or virtually); we can check on each other and really listen through the fear and anxiety and outright paranoia. We can support local businesses, sew masks, donate supplies; we can offer to help those who are stuck being homebound. We can go about our days with generosity and goodness no matter what.

Because we need to live in the Light as much as we can. Panic and hoarding will not help; acting as a community and helping each other will. 

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address in 1933, the depths of The Great Depression, 

This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.  So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

And the only way to work through that fear is to unfreeze ourselves from our collective panic and reach for each other's hands (keeping our proscribed social distance!) and offer support. Listen, sympathize, offer help, sew masks, wash our hands, don't go out if we're sick, smile, get outside, buy groceries or books or whatever is needed, shovel a driveway, walk a dog... 

And say "thank you." Thank you for your service, for being my neighbor, for delivering my mail, for stocking the shelves and staffing the clinics. Thank you for comforting my friend, testing my niece, transporting sick people to the hospital, for burying the dead... 

Remember too, to nurture yourself. Do what soothes you, eat good food, get enough sleep, look for beauty and moments of joy. Notice and take heart from the coming of spring: the birdsong, flowers blooming, the first bees and butterflies; life continuing despite all. 

Thank you all for being who you are, and for whatever you do to live in the Light in these frightening times. Blessings from me to each of you...

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Living with Love in a Time of Dying

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That's the new subtitle of my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds*, a phrase that came to me this winter when I realized, as I write in the Preface, "The personal is the political." Meaning my story of living with heart open through times more difficult than I had ever imagined is directly applicable to all of us now, as we do our best to live with hope rather than despair through what seems the death of civility, the death of our planet, and the death of our democracy. Not to mention the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic.  

How do we avoid being paralyzed by grief and fear in these times? 

It's not easy, but it is possible: 

This story is about living in a time of dying. It is both prayer and love song, an invitation to walk in the light of what we love, especially when times are hard or heartbreaking. To open our hearts and go forward with as much grace as we can through life’s changes. To honor our cell-deep connection to all of the other lives with whom we share this planet. To celebrate the miracle of simply being, our capacity for love that is both gift and salvation.

How can we rise above and be our best?

Walk in light of what we love, rather than what we fear. That means reminding ourselves--often--what it is that we love. We we care about, what we appreciate and can celebrate about ourselves and our lives, and about life on this amazing animate planet. 

As is opening our hearts and living our days with as much grace as is possible. Consciously looking for the beauty inherent in each day, whether that is a flower blooming inside in winter, a coyote glimpsed trotting through a grassland, a fragment of bird song, a painting, piece of music, or dance; an unexpected smile or the touch of a warm hand... 

And staying connected to our community, near and far. Not just the people who are most like us and easiest to love, but all of humanity, and all of the species who together make Earth the green and living exception to the vast silence of space. 

You'll notice the repetition of the word love, the quality which I think is the greatest gift our species has to offer Life. Not just romantic love or intense physical desire, the genuine attachment we humans feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole.

How can we thrive, despite the convulsive changes happening to the world we love? 

I offer this personal story as an example of something positive we can do: live with love, and “lean in” to nature, the community that birthed our species. I see love as humans’ greatest gift to this Earth, and one we need to cultivate—especially now. I bless the birds because the sudden and profoundly unnerving appearance of Richard’s avian hallucinations afforded us time to learn how to walk his journey to its end with love. To be reminded of the kindness and generosity intrinsic in our fellow humans. To take heart and sustenance from the miracle of life on this glorious planet, challenges and all. To live fully in a time when life seems especially hard and heart-breaking.

When we find ourselves curling inward in grief and fear, we need to remember our species' best gift: love. 

Living in light of what we love can carry us through. That takes practice, conscious cultivation of being present with compassion and an open heart. Simply being here, hearts open to the flow of life. 

Blessings to you all! 

*Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, is due out from She Writes Press in a little over a year, April of 2021. It's been a long journey, and I am excited to have this, my 13th book, on a path to publication at last. 

A coyote from my neighborhood pack hunting the open space below my house at sunset... 

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A Love Story in Troubled Times

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With the world seeming to be heading into chaos once again, I find myself searching for anything positive or cheering. Any good news, any happy ending, any ray of light in what feels like gathering darkness. I'm offering this love story in that vein, as a sign that goodness still exists, and miracles still happen. I'm not going to identify the lovers out of respect for one's desire for privacy. You'll probably guess the identity of the other; that's okay.

Once upon a time, a writer quite reluctantly left her cozy home in the Southwest to travel north to Wyoming and teach at a retreat center. She grumbled as she drove, not because going to Wyoming wasn't a joy, but because she was close to finishing a book project, and she didn't want to leave the writing just then. But she had promised to lead a seminar for another friend who had to bow out, so our writer honored that commitment, if grumpily. 

At sunset on her first day on the road, as she crossed the state line into Wyoming, the writer's mood lifted. Looking at the wild valley around her, she realized that she needed to throw open the walls she had carefully built since her husband had died nearly eight years before. In particular, she needed to find a place to live with more open landscapes around her, and fewer people nearby, unlike the condo where she had lived for the past year.

When she curled up in her sleeping bag in her car that night, our writer surfed a real estate site on the internet, checking what was for sale in the area she was thinking of. Within minutes, she saw a house that looked just perfect for her--clearly in need of some love, but she wasn't bothered by that. The asking price was over her budget, but she noticed the house had been on the market for months, so she figured she might be able to get it for less. Before she drifted off to sleep, she sent an email to her friend, a real estate agent, asking her opinion of the house and suggesting an appointment to view it when writer returned home the next month. 

The next morning, our writer was feeling buoyant. As she drove through southern Wyoming's sagebrush country with its long views and immense blue skies, she said out loud to the universe, "If I'm buying a house, it's time to bring a dog back into my life. I'll take the next one that comes along."

She hadn't had a dog since her Great Dane had died in 2007. Just over a year after the big grief of losing that beloved Big Dog came the brain cancer and caregiving years that had eventually set the writer on a solo path in life. For years after midwifing both her mother and her husband through their deaths she was simply too drained to be able to commit to any relationship, even the easy companionship of a dog. 

"It's finally time," she said to herself as she drove toward distant mountain ranges, counting grazing pronghorn antelope and soaring golden eagles. And she felt good. 

Late that afternoon she parked at the ranch where she was teaching. When she got out of her car and stretched her stiff back, a distinguished older dog, his red muzzle gone white, ambled across the dusty lot, sniffed her ankles, and presented himself for attention. She scratched his back at the base of his wagging stub tail, and then moved on to rub his ears. He groaned, sat on her feet, and looked up at her with big brown eyes.

"You're a sweetie!" our writer said to the dog. "But you belong to someone already. You're not mine." He lifted his lips in a doggy grin, wagged his stub-tail harder, and ambled off. 

A few hours later in the dining hall, the writer was chatting with some of the participants in her seminar when the dog's person walked up and introduced himself: "I'm [we'll call him "the guy"] and we almost met 30 years ago." She turned to answer, and her heart stopped. The man wore his wildly curling dark-turned-silver hair in a stubby pony tail, his nicely muscled body in a plaid shirt and jeans. He tilted his head to look at her through the close-up lenses in his bifocals when she spoke, his brown eyes magnified and his body attentive, as if he was listening with his very cells. Plop! Her heart fell right at the toes of his dusty cowboy boots. She doesn't remember now what she said, but she remembers the distinctive mixture of terror, annoyance--this is not my life plan!--and excitement she felt.

She went to sleep in her cozy cabin that night arguing with herself. She was quite happy with her solo existence, had no interest in a relationship, and had her life arranged comfortably, thank you very much. As she said the last out loud, our writer was quite sure she could hear the universe laughing.

The week went by, the writer spent her days writing, hiking, paddle-boarding, and riding the ranch's horses. (The guy was involved with the horse program, which she told herself firmly had nothing to do with her choosing to ride--she simply missed the long-ago days when she had ridden often, both for her botany fieldwork and for pleasure on her own horses.) In the evenings, she taught her seminars, with the guy and his gentlemanly dog perched on a couch front and center in the room.

By the end of the week, our writer and the guy had managed to sit together at a few meals, but since they were both working, time for conversation was almost non-existent. Still, she had learned their lives had nearly intersected many times over the decades, they shared many mutual friends in the writing world, and many interests. He had a varied and intriguing background, including science fieldwork, publishing, horse-tending, and a new interest in the spiritual side of palliative care and hospice. Their conversations showed her that the guy was a wide reader and a deep thinker, with an interest in reconnecting humans with the wild, which they both thought was the source of sacredness and spirituality. He was just four months older than she was, with deep roots in the landscapes she called home too. 

When they parted at the end of the week, she learned that he hugged as thoroughly as he listened. She drove off to spend several weeks working in a nearby national park, torn between excitement and terror. He spent the next month hunting in the high country of Colorado. They talked on the phone when they could, their long conversations ranging from what "home" meant to methods of dealing with invasive weeds, and from favorite musicians to what they had learned from other loves in their lives, to the age-old question of whether red chile is better than green chile. (That last is the only thing they disagreed on.)

That fall, the guy came to visit for a weekend so they could hear a writer they both knew read from her new book. They hiked, cooked, took walks, and talked. A lot. 

Two nights stretched to four, and when the guy left, our writer surprised herself and him by saying, "I love you." The words were a gift, she explained; he wasn't required to respond at all. She just wanted him to know he was loved, whether or not he felt the same. He nodded. After he called her that night to say he had made it home safely, he called back. "I forgot to say something," he said. "What?" "I love you." Tears formed in her eyes. "It's been hard for me to say my whole life," he added. "But I'll try to remember to say it every day." She swiped at drops running down her cheeks. "Thank you," she said. "I love you too."

The writer and the guy are figuring out how to interweave their respective lives and to use this gift of unexpected love for good in the world. If we only listen to the news, these difficult times seem so short of goodness and love. But those qualities are all around us, and we all spread them every day. The truth is: love--not necessarily romantic love, but the genuine attachment we feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole--is what sustains us in and through hard times. Hence this story, which I offer as a ray of light and a reminder that love lives, thrives, and even surprises us even in or perhaps specially in, hard times. 

Sometimes when she is falling asleep at night, snuggled close to the guy and the dog, our writer thinks she hears the universe laughing softly. And she reminds herself to be grateful for the miracle of love returning to her life. Also to be very specific in future when she asks the universe for anything. She only asked for a dog. She got the dog all right--plus his guy, and the guy's horses. She wants to you know that while she is still surprised, even a bit stunned by the suddenness of the change in her carefully ordered life, she is not complaining. At all. 

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Giving Thanks: Gratitude Practice

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Gratitude is good for us. Brain research shows that simply being grateful releases neurotransmitters that act like dopamine in our brains, making us feel good, and boosting our overall health.

New findings show that practicing gratitude actually rewires our brains to be more altruistic, activating areas of the brain that reward our generosity by increasing the neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and also goal attainment. In other words, the more we find ways to be grateful, the more generous we are and the more we give others a reason to be grateful. That feedback loop gives us more happiness and satisfaction. 

The hook is that we can't just be grateful over one meal, one day a year. We have to make it a habit to remember specific things we are grateful for on a regular basis. And consciously act in generous ways, too. 

Those who have read this blog for a while know that Thanksgiving marks a difficult time of year for me because my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer a few days after Thanksgiving in 2011, when he was just 61. His death followed that of my mom, who died in February of that year. I midwifed both deaths at home, as each wished, with the help of family, friends, and hospice care.

It's been eight years. Still, I tend to fold inward in late November, not so much from grief, but from anticipatory anxiety. Those two deaths catapulted me into a few very difficult years as I dug myself out of what seemed like an impossible amount of debt, and invented a life that was happy, sustainable, and satisfying. 

As an antidote to the trauma of those events and the blues that stem from my muscle memories, I consciously practice gratitude and generosity at this time of year (not only now--I'm just more aware of it at this season). Here's what I'm most grateful for right now, in no particular order: 

Casa Alegría, in our surprise Thanksgiving snowstorm

My new house, which I call Casa Alegría, "House of Joy" in Spanish. It's been through foreclosure and needs some serious love, but it's such a beautiful space with great light and open spaces inside and out, plus it feels sheltered in its little hollow. It offers both refuge and expansive views, a nest that gives me a wider perspective on the world, both literally and figuratively. 

The great room, with its two-story-high ceiling of tongue-and-groove pine, sun-space opening onto the nearby wild, and The Beast, the pellet stove that supplements the sun's heat. 

The loft, with my desk tucked into the south-facing dormer with it's hundred-mile view all the way to central New Mexico's Sierra Oscura. 

The kitchen, all warm-colored pine cabinets and cozy beamed ceiling. (There's a hummingbird nest in the New Mexico locust tree out the window.)

The master bedroom with its sky blue accent wall, and a door leading directly outside to a little covered porch facing east toward the greenbelt below the house. 

I've just gotten started on the work Casa Alegría needs to feel like a healthy home, beginning with painting a few of the all-white walls in shades of sage green, pale terracotta, dawn yellow, and a soft sky blue. And replacing aged light fixtures with new, energy-efficient ones. The more substantive work will begin this winter, when the uninsulated garage door that no longer shuts completely is replaced with a new, insulated one. (That door not sealing explains the money I spent sterilizing the mouse-infected attic above the garage.) Then I'll have insulation blown into the attic, which has none after I disposed of the old mouse-pee-crusted fiberglass batts. Plus gutters added to the front portal and the north- and east-facing roofs. 

Then comes replacing all of the openable windows and a few of the exterior doors with more efficient ones that will actually seal as well as letting in more light. Followed by stabilizing an exterior post or two, a tricky process that involves putting jacks under overhanging roofs and carefully removing a post, digging a foundation and pouring a concrete base, and then replacing the post using plates and bolts instead of simply nails. 

All of which sounds like a lot of work, but is nothing compared to the two years of starting in the basement and working my way upwards re-building the Cody house!

Another thing I'm particularly grateful for is the company of a charming canine caballero (gentleman), Badger, the 11-year-old Vizsla in the photo above. Badger has been visiting for the last two weeks while his guy was away on a road trip. In his own polite way, Badger insists on two long walks a day--we usually do three miles or more--on the roads and trails around the house. He also insists on playtime when I've worked too long, usually by sitting up on the couch and howling until I come downstairs from the loft!

Badger and his person, DeWitt, wandered into my life when I was teaching at Ring Lake Ranch in September. That deepening friendship is another thing I'm grateful for. DeWitt generously spent a week here helping me move. He insisted on playtime too, so we spent a night relaxing at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, and then played hooky for a whole afternoon exploring part of the old Camino Real with DeWitt's sister, Lori, and her friend Allison, and their horses. It's been so long since I had horses in my life that I had entirely forgotten the joy of simply riding a trail for a few hours without any agenda or schedule. 

And that's another thing I'm grateful for: I'm relearning joy and play. I have been pushing myself so hard for so long that I have neglected the practice of stepping back from relentless do-ing into a more loving and trusting be-ing. It's time for me to re-learn be-ing and letting my heart guide me. 

I'm also grateful for all of you, and the love and compassion you offer the world. 

What are you grateful for?

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Isostatic Rebound: Recovering Wildness

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isostatic rebound n. The slow rise of continental crusts after thick ice sheets recede, and the crustal rocks are freed from their massive weight. Measured in thousands of years. Also called glacial isostatic adjustment. 

Driving north to teach at Ring Lake Ranch just before Labor Day weekend, I experienced an odd phenomenon as I went over the ridge that bounds the northern edge of North Park in Colorado. It was evening and the sun was near to setting. The light over the hayfields was golden and the air still. 

As I crossed the state line into Wyoming, I let out a long sigh and relaxed. It felt as if the world had expanded, the horizons stretching away. As if a spaciousness had opened both within me and without.

The landscape didn't change much at the Colorado–Wyoming line, but something in me shifted. I couldn't explain what happened exactly or what it meant, so I pressed on. 

A little over a week later after I finished my gig at Ring Lake Ranch in Wyoming's Wind River Range, I was on my way north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park to continue my long-term project of hand-digging invasive weeds. I stopped at a favorite spot on the northern shore of Lake Yellowstone, sat on a rock, and looked south across the wind-ruffled expanse of the lake at the wildest part of our nation's oldest national park, the Thorofare Valley.

Yellowstone Lake with the peaks of the Absarokas on the left, and the gap of the Thorofare Valley in the far distance in the middle skyline.  

I walked most of the length of that wild and remote valley on a multi-day, solo backpacking trip years ago. One noontime on that trek, I watched, fascinated, as a grizzly bear stalked a sandhill crane; on several nights, I woke to the sound of moose thrashing through willow thickets perilously close to my tent. I went several days without seeing another human. I sang a lot, and talked out loud to Sadie, the borrowed dog who accompanied me that week. 

Looking across the lake last month, I remembered clearly how it felt to be on my own in some of the biggest wild in the lower 48 states, where I was constantly alert to the world around me, acutely aware that I was really just lunch for any one of the larger predators around, whether grizzly bears, mountain lions, or whomever. And that if anything happened to me, it was likely that I'd never be found. 

I walked through those days in a state of mixed terror and exhilaration, alive in a way I only feel when I'm in the wild. Especially when I'm in the wild alone. 

Looking across the lake with the feel of fall in the air, I realized that I need more wildness in my life. Over the decades of living with and loving Richard and Molly, I put the part of me which needs wilderness aside. Neither Richard nor Molly had or have the same deep need for time in the Big Wild as I do. Their idea of wilderness is that at the end of the day, there will be a microbrewery nearby with a good selection of Belgian-style ales, a hot shower, and a real bed. 

We went on precisely one backpacking trip as a family, when Molly was four and we lived in West Virginia. It was my birthday, and I was determined to celebrate in the wildest place around, so I mapped out a three-day, two-night trip in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. It wouldn't offer the solitude and rugged peaks of the northern Rockies, I knew, but I figured it would at least get us out to enjoy some wild nearby. 

Richard and Molly were so miserable the first night that I took pity on us all: we packed out the next morning, stopping on the way home for a "real breakfast," in Molly's words, and "decent coffee" in the words of her dad. I tried again a few times over the years, but they simply didn't love what I love about being out and away from humans. 

So I put aside the part of me who craves time away from humanity, time to refresh and recharge in the wild, time to be fully awake and present in my moments because I am reminded vividly that I am just a meal for some larger organism... Over the years I forgot I even need that time. 

Trail Lake at dawn from Ring Lake Ranch, with the peaks of the Wind River Range framed by the glacial valley. 

Sitting on the shore of Yellowstone Lake on that breezy, chill day last month, I realized that what I felt when I crossed the state line into Wyoming was my spirit expanding to fit the wide spaces around me. Wyoming is roughly the same size as Colorado, where Richard and I lived for decades. But the human population of Colorado is over 5 million people, while Wyoming's population is now less than 600,000 people, almost an order of magnitude smaller. With fewer people on the land, Wyoming is home to multitudes of pronghorn, sage grouse, elk, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves. (Not to mention all of the smaller species, also more numerous in the absence humans.)

I thought about that realization as I worked up a sweat hand-digging knapweed for the next week and some, and as I visited friends in Cody. As I drove south toward home, my charming little condo in Santa Fe, I realized that I need more space and fewer people around me. I pondered what that would look like in Santa Fe. 

I stopped on Beaver Rim with its long view of the Wind River Range and the Absarokas beyond, country that I know intimately from my fieldwork years before Richard and Molly came into my life. Taking in that long view of the country I have walked and ridden over, spending days far from roads and people, I impulsively used my phone to check the listings of houses for sale in Eldorado, a planned community with abundant open space and trails where the plains meet the mountains southeast of Santa Fe. 

The view of the Wind River Range from Beaver Rim, a long fetch of open country. 

Standing there on the ridge looking at houses for sale southeast of Santa Fe, I spotted a photo of a small, Northern-New Mexico-style house with a steeply-slanting metal roof, dormers, and a windowed sun-space for solar gain, tucked into a bit of a hollow, a bit apart from its neighbors, backed up on greenbelt. And I knew it was mine because my spirit expanded looking at the photos of that house, the way my soul opened up when I crossed the Wyoming line on the way north. 

When I got home, I called my friend and real estate agent; we laughed about my realization and how much I've moved in the past five years. Then she arranged for me to see the place. In person, I could see it needed a good bit of TLC, but not so much it frightened me. And it still felt like mine, my place of wide skies and nighttime stars, of hikes or trail rides from the house into the nearby wild ridges. I'm scheduled to close on the place I call Casa Alegria on November 1st. I'll have a little work done right away, and move in over the next week. I can hardly wait (even though I've been too busy to even pack a single box!)

It's as if I'm experiencing isostatic rebound after the losses of the last eight years: Mom, Richard, and Dad, the latter just a year ago. It's been a slow process and a lot of searching, but I feel as if in that gradual rising as the immense weight of grief melts away, I am rediscovering myself. My heart and spirit are expanding into the space I am creating. And I like the me I am finding. 

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Where's Susan? (Part 2)

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Since I left Ring Lake Ranch two weeks ago after a teaching sojourn that was simultaneously restorative and stimulating, Noche's tires have hummed another 1,200 miles. First west to Grand Teton National Park, where I waved at that familiar wall of peaks as I drove by. (That's the Tetons at the top of the post.) I didn't stop to explore the familiar park because I was on a mission, headed north to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP, where I spent a week working at eradicating non-native, invasive weeds. 

For the past four summers, I've spent at least a week, usually three or four, in Yellowstone doing what I call my "weeding mission." Which is about as much like weeding a garden as running a marathon is like my twice-weekly half-hour run on a treadmill. They're both exercise, but running a marathon and eradicating invasive weeds are both long games: each requires patience, strategy, and as much mental toughness as physical toughness. 

As I've written in other contexts, including this blog post for Off the Beaten Path, what leads a non-native plant to being called "invasive" is not a prejudice against immigrants:

Tens of thousands of non-native species call the United States home without causing harm. But not every species belongs everywhere. Invasives are those relative few who don’t play well with others, the species who behave badly, a detriment to us all.

The invasive weed I was digging in my time around Mammoth in Yellowstone is spotted knapweed, known to science as Centaurea maculosa, a perennial plant native to Eastern Europe. Here on this continent, spotted knapweed so does not play well with others that it wrecks the neighborhood. When spotted knapweed moves in, its roots exude poisons into the soil, "discouraging" (aka, killing) the roots of the native species around it, so that eventually, the knapweed takes over. 

Spotted knapweed, Centuarea maculosa, quietly engaged in killing the Indian ricegrass and other native plants that songbirds and pollinators depend on, so its progeny can colonize the area. 

But, you protest, it's got such a pretty purple flower! Surely knapweed attracts bumblebees and other native bees, and perhaps its seeds are edible by wintering songbirds and small mammals, so it does actually benefit the community of the land?

It's true that bumblebees do gather pollen from knapweed, though I've never seen other native bees visit the flowers. I don't know if knapweed's seeds are sought out by any of the seed-gathering birds or mammals as winter food, but I'd guess not because they're dry and chaffy, rather than plump and nutritious. 

What I do know is that knapweed lacks the rich web of relationships with other plants and other species that sustain a healthy landscape. And by replacing the native plants, knapweed disrupts those relationships--between pollinator and flower, between bird and the insects they feed their young, between mammal and seed, between those that shelter and those sheltered.

Worse yet, if unchecked, spotted knapweed can kill off the shrubby overstory of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) that Mark Twain recognized as the "forest canopy in miniature." These century-old plants, growing as tall as ten feet with twisting stems as big as the bicep of a muscly man, shade the soil, collect rain and snow for moisture, drop a fertilizing layer of leaves, and provide food and homes for hundreds of species of wildlife, from flashy black-and-white buckmoths to speedster pronghorn antelope. 

Grandmother big sagebrush in the area I've been digging knapweed; the tallest plant is about ten feet. 

Without big sagebrush as the sheltering canopy, these drought-challenged grasslands will turn inhospitable indeed, losing species diversity, richness, and their rugged beauty. I remove knapweed as a way to honor the diversity of lives they support, and to restore their wild community to health.

Digging my plant knife into the soil to pry out the spreading roots of a spotted knapweed plant is my personal resistance to climate change, my way to give resilience to the landscapes I love. 

My plant knife next to a knapweed I have freshly pried out of the clayey soil, being careful to not disturb the sagebrush roots. 

And dig I do, kneeling on the soil, carefully inserting the seven-inch blade of my tool into the soil, and applying enough leverage that the roots come free. Then sitting back, taking a deep breath, stretching my back and my arms, before thrusting the blade into the soil to pry up another knapweed. And another, and another. In some places they are so dense that it takes me an hour or more to clear a meter-square area (that's a bit bigger than a square yard). 

By the end of three or four hours, when I am worn out for the day, I usually have two or three 30-gallon bags filled with knapweed. (I bag up the plants to be taken to the dump so that no seeds are dispersed, and so the decomposing plants don't continue to emit their mite of poison to the soil.)

Weed bags stuffed into the micro-camper where I sleep in the back of Noche, my Toyota Highlander Hybrid. 

While I'm digging weeds, I keep my ears and eyes alert for wildlife. Sometimes a grizzly bear mom wanders by with her almost-grown cubs (yes, I carry bear spray). Or the resident bull elk herds his harem of two dozen or so cows and calves right through the area where I'm working (I move safely out of the way until they leave!).

Romeo in elk form, serenading his Juliets (that's "Juliets" plural, because of how many females he was wooing). 

Or, like the afternoon I was working with filmmaker Beth Davidow, I stop in awe to watch a nearly six-foot-long bullsnake glide past, hunting silently just a few feet from where we stood. (I'm sure Beth, a talented photographer, got a much better shot!)

The hunting bullsnake--her body was as large around as my upper arm. 

In my time in Yellowstone, I worked hard, rested well, and found, as a friend put it, "balm for my soul." It does my spirit good to contribute positively to this Earth, especially in a time of crisis. 

Now I'm home, working on restoring wildness and resilience to nature right around the condo complex where I live, including the strip of pollinator habitat with the gold flare of flowering rubber rabbitbrush (Ericamera nauseosa) and rubberweed (Hymenoxys richardsonii), and purple fall asters (which I haven't yet identified) in the photo below. Not only are these native flowers beautiful and drought-tolerant, they provide fall's final banquet for pollinators of all sorts, including bees, beetles, and butterflies. And come the hungry months of winter, their seeds will feed bushtits, juncos, and other small songbirds. 

You don't have to journey to Yellowstone and dig knapweed to make a difference.

We can all restore the health of nature around us, by removing invasive weeds and planting native species in yards, parks, and nearby landscapes. In a time full of bad news, returning health, resilience, and beauty to nature nearby is good news for us all. Join me in giving back to the Earth that gives us so much!

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Where's Susan?

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As in, Where's Waldo? Except that I'm easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, "Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change," and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering "refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness."

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum--he's behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There's the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully "apart" enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there's the hiking and paddling and riding and food... 

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed--full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!) 

Stopping on a ride to take in the view... 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer. 

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach. 

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today's Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving "tails" like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration. 

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed. 

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend's dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well. 

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet--and us, too. 

Blessings to you all!

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